Bright Air, by Barry Maitland, was the book I bought at the Melbourne Writers Festival last Sunday and subsequently read in three days. Needless to say I enjoyed the book a lot.
It's about Josh, a young merchant banker, who returns to Sydney after a four-year stint in London to the news that two of his uni friends (Curtis and Owen) had recently died in a rock climbing accident in NZ. On his death bed, Owen admits to another friend, Anna, that they killed Luce, Josh's former girlfriend and Anna's best friend, who also purportedly died in a climbing accident while studying birdlife on Lord Howe Island some four years previously.
There follows what I would call a gentle mystery/thriller novel as Josh and Anna team up to try to discover what really happened to Luce on Lord Howe Island. They get right into the amateur sleuthing business, which inevitably takes them to Lord Howe Island where they partake of some rather spectacular rock climbing!
I said in an earlier post that it reminded me of Donna Tartt's The Secret History and this was because Bright Air also centres on a close-knit group of university students, at the centre of which is a violent crime. However, as I read through the book, it reminded me more strongly of the Mary Stewart mystery/thriller novels, which also have a very strong sense of place and involve everyday people becoming embroiled in solving a murder.
In the discussion last week, Maitland said he was generally more interested in the 'why' of a murder, rather than the 'who' and certainly that's what drives this story. Josh and Anna, who naturally have difficulty believing that a close friend could have killed 'one of the group' (and everybody's favourite), are driven to discover under what circumstances that could have happened.
I suppose I will admit that I found some of the motives not quite as believable as they might have been, but this is largely in hindsight and it didn't affect my enjoyment of the story. The characters are well drawn and interesting, and the sense of place is fabulous.
I think place must be something that I'm driven to in a story. I've never really considered it before, but if I consider my favourite novels, they are largely ones with a strong sense of place (fantasy or otherwise). It's a case of virtual travelling -- now I want to go to Lord Howe Island!